Note: I wrote this as an assignment at a Jesuit high school; thus this is written from a Catholic perspective. I know that not everybody thinks "The Church" is "the Catholic church."
The ordination of women is perhaps the most important
development in Christianity in decades. “The last time there was such a
ground swell that was not heeded was the Protestant Reformation,” says
Sandra Schneiders, a feminist and nun at the Jesuit School of Theology
(Ostling 52). After centuries of all-male
priesthood, Christian religions are beginning to open themselves to the
possibility of female clergy members. The United Methodist, Presbyterian,
Lutheran, Episcopal, Reformed, and Mormon Churches ordain women
of some kind (Ward xv). In addition, both Reform and Conservative
Judaism ordain women rabbis. Recently, the Anglican Church of England
ordained its first 32 women priests in 1994.
The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, opposes any form of ordination for women. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church officially does not consider itself “authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1976, 2). Furthermore, it holds that “...the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist...is performed by a man” (Pope John Paul II 1988, 29). In fact, the Vatican recently issued a statement that may make the rule an “infallible” teaching (Steinfels 14). The Church believes that women are not called to ordained ministry for three reasons: tradition, the maleness of the apostles, and the maleness of Jesus. First, the Church holds that 2,000 years of all-male priesthood is not something to be lightly dismissed, and that the Church has no authority to do so. Second, the Church contends that since all twelve of Jesus’ apostles were male, then all priests (who, ultimately, descend from the apostles) should likewise be male. Lastly, the Church cites Jesus’ very maleness as vital to the sacrament of the Eucharist; only a male priest can represent the male Jesus in the Eucharist.
These reasons are all very heartfelt and religious, yet they can all be shown to be incorrect. The Catholic Church’s position on women’s ordination is basically flawed: there is no historical, logical, scriptural, or practical basis for the prohibition of women priests.
First, the “two thousand years” of tradition are not reason enough to continue an all-male priesthood. Although the Church is very conscious of tradition, this is one case in which tradition goes against the good of society. Not all traditions are good; for example, it was once common practice for the Church to interrogate “heretics” until they “confessed” their “sins.” Likewise, the gospels have been often used to promote slavery in the past, just as they are being used to undermine the ordination of women today.
Opponents to women’s ordination quote St. Paul, with his harsh commandments: “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men” (I Timothy 2: 12), and “the women should keep silence in the churches” (I Corinthians 14: 34). However, the Church has already stated that these passages should be taken in their historical context, and that they apply more to the ancient world than our own. Indeed, many theologians believe they “were not written by Paul...they probably originated as a marginal note at a time when social conventions were permitted to limit the freedom of the Spirit” (Murphy-O’Connor 133). Others hold it as “a heretical view” or think that Paul “is quoting the slogans of the Corinthian male elitists” (Getty 69).
The Church showed that it is willing to do away with some of its less-than-logical traditions recently when the Vatican allowed dioceses to use girls as acolytes in masses. This development was viewed as a “an interpretation of existing Church law,” but nevertheless bashes down a 2,000-year tradition of all-boy servers (Woodard 36). Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that even the “two thousand years” of all-male priesthood may be a fallacy; a historian recently found that “the ordination of women was once an accepted practice” and was not forbidden until “a church council of the fourth century” (Connell A1).
Second, simply because all of Jesus’ apostles happened to be male does not mean that all priests must, likewise, be male. Jesus spoke favorably of women, had women followers, and even sent them on journeys with the apostles. Indeed, women stayed with Jesus at the cross when all others had abandoned him, and women were the first to see the resurrection. Opponents of women’s ordination say that Jesus’ omission of a single women from the Twelve (despite his generally progressive attitude towards women at the time) proves that the selection of twelve men for his apostles was by design. Though an interesting theory, it has no relevance in this matter; Jesus likewise did not include a single gentile in the Twelve despite his then-revolutionary treatment of them, yet nearly all priests now are not Jewish. Likewise, all the apostles likely had beards, yet there is no ban on clean-shaven priests. Who is to say that the great women of the New Testament somehow were left out of the ministry because they were not apostles? Indeed, the Bible shows women preaching the Gospel along with the apostles. Finally, one must read the Bible with a historical perspective; had Jesus chosen a woman as one of his disciples, there was a good chance no one would have listened to him at the time. He may have chosen the apostles based on practicality, not dogma.
Third, the assertion that priests, representing Jesus in the Eucharist, must also be male is absurd. What is important to the Divine Mystery is not that God became man (specifically), but that God became human. His humanity is far more important than His gender; we do not celebrate Jesus’ maleness but that he loved humans so much that he became one with us and died on the cross to save us all. “Even if we do focus on this image,” says theologian Gary L. Ward, “must the Christ-figure always be male? Jesus as a human was male, but is Christ as part of the Trinity to be thought of as male. Few theologians would accept that, maintaining that the Trinity is supra-sexual” (xxii). Also often quoted is the “bridegroom” metaphor, in which the Church is the “bride” to Christ. This is indeed a touching metaphor for the relation between the Church and Jesus, but it is only a metaphor, not to be taken literally; the importance is the relationship, not who fills what gender role. Indeed, is the Jesus that supposedly demands this maleness to represent himself in the mass the same Jesus who preached “love your neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have done unto you”?
Finally, practical problems within the Church exist which the ordination of women can help solve. The Catholic Church is losing more and more priests every day; many retire, others die of old age. Enrollment in seminaries is at an all-time low (from 1966 to 1993 the number fell by 85%), and many parishes (more than 10%) are now asked to run themselves without a priest. At the same time, the number of Catholics continues to rise. “Over the 30 years from 1975 to 2005, the number of priests in relation to Catholics in the United States is expected to fall by half, to one priest for every 2,200, leaving far too few to perform all their time-honored functions” (Eckholm 1). The Church has a dire need for new priests, and women could fulfill this role very well. In fact, many women already lead parishes, especially those that have no priests of their own. Women clergy have been accepted in many other Christian religions, and all are doing quite well. It is unthinkable that a Church in dire need of priests would be so unwilling to accept even the idea of women priests. Indeed, many charge the Church with sexism against women because of this unfounded phobia of leadership roles for women. Yet, despite the intentions of the Church, the fact remains that there are less and less priests, and more and more churchgoers—leaving a large gap that could be filled by women priests.
The ordination of women is perfectly acceptable on the grounds of history, logic, scripture, and practicality. Perhaps, someday, women will attain ordination, bringing us one step closer to following Christ’s message of love towards all people—male and female.
Connell, Joan. “History Finds Women As Early Priests.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, La.) Nov. 3 Vol. 4 Article 7 (1991): A1.
Eckholm, Erik. “Searching Its Soul: The American Catholic Church.” New York Times May 30 Vol. 4 Article 66 (1994): 1.
Getty, Mary Ann. First Corinthians, Second Corinthians. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. 69.
Lecuyer, Joseph. What is a Priest? New York: Hawthorn Books, 1959.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Churches Speak on: Women’s Ordination. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. 1 Corinthians. Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc. 133.
Ostling, Richard N. “The Second Reformation.” Time November 23 Vol. 140 Issue 21 (1992): 52–59.
Steinfels, Peter. “Ban on women priests ‘infallible,’ says Vatican.” San Francisco Examiner November 19 (1993): B-14.
Woodard, Joe. “Off the Hook on Altar Girls.”
Report May 2 Vol. 21 Issue 20 (1994): 36–37
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